BEWITCHED, BOTHERED AND BEGUILEDED: Movie Reviews of The Beguiled and The Big Sick by Howard Casner

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The original film The Beguiled was directed by Don Siegel and starred Clint Eastwood, from a novel by Thomas Cullinan. It was an attempt by Eastwood to do something more interesting than the man with no name and Dirty Harry. And there is something fascinating about it. Whether one likes it or not, one can’t quite look away.

The basic premise is that a wounded Northern soldier ends up being taken in by the remaining inhabitants of an all girl’s boarding school located in the South during the Civil War. The longer he stays, the more he arouses the repressed sexuality of the women, which simmers and simmers until all sorts of conflicts break out of the Southern Gothic variety. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Review of SEDUCED AND ABANDONED by Howard Casner

Seduced and Abandoned is not to be confused with the classic Italian film directed by Pietro Germi that came out in 1964, but I doubt you’ll be fooled after five minutes into the picture. No, this 2013 release is a movie that purports to make a statement on the state of filmmaking today. At the same time, it’s also one of those movies where the filmmakers don’t realize that the statement they are making may not actually be the statement they are making.

The basic premise of this semi-documentary revolves around director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin taking an idea they have for a movie to the Cannes Film Festival and seeing if they can get someone to fork over $40 to $50 million to make it (and no, before you ask, they are not punking anyone; they are quite serious). When they don’t get the support they think they deserve, they then suggest that this is what is wrong with film financing today—no one is willing to take a chance and produce a work of art; they are only interested in the bottom line.

But let’s take a closer look at what is going on here. A director with a small cult following, but who really isn’t that impressive a filmmaker (for anyone who wants proof of this, watch Toback’s movie Fingers and then watch Jacque Audiard’s French remake of it, The Beat that My Heart Skipped, and one can immediately see what I mean), takes an idea (not even a completed script, but the barest of bones of a gleam in a father’s eye) that is to star Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell (Neve Campbell? Really?) and pitches said idea to seasoned producers. The idea? (And please try not to chortle and disrupt the audience members around you as I did): Last Tango in Baghdad (I told you, no chortling), the story of two people, a war haunted U.S. agent and a liberal journalist, who meet for a series of sexual encounters in a hotel room in the war torn city.

No, I am not making this up—that’s the idea. Actually, I’m being a bit harder on it that it deserves. There’s nothing that wrong with the premise. It’s perfectly serviceable and with the right screenwriter, there’s no reason it couldn’t be a good movie. But for me, things start going off the road a bit the second they started pitching it as a Last Tango rip off. In fact, the moments with the most humor in this faux-doc are the scenes Toback shows from that once, but no longer, scandalous movie—like Brando asking Maria Schneider to stick her fingers up his ass (at least they didn’t do the “pass the butter” scene); it’s unfortunate for Toback that Last Tango… hasn’t, unlike cheese, aged that well.

The other issue is that Toback and Baldwin pitch this idea as if it were the most original and daring idea in the world, that they are going to break new sexual ground and create something really scandalous; a statement that could only be made by people who have never seen a movie like 9 Songs where you actually see, in pornographic detail, a man and woman have sex, including cum shots. Now, are Baldwin and Campbell going to break new ground here by pulling a James Deen (no, not the actor, the porn star—notice the spelling of the name) and Joanna Angel? Why do I suspect not?

So what do we have? We have a second rate filmmaker, with barely an idea for a movie (and hasn’t been written yet), and an idea that’s not that original and with a lousy pitch, to star two non-bankable actors; and yet, Toback and Baldwin are shocked, shocked (in their very best Captain Louis Renault manner) that they can’t get $40 to $50 million in financing. Hence, their conclusion that something is rotten in the state of moviemaking. Meanwhile, I’m in the audience going, Uh, guys, you do realize that the only thing you’ve proven is that the guys out there financing films can smell a lemon a mile away? In fact, rather than demonstrate that something’s gone wrong in France’s version of tinsel town, Seduced and Abandoned ironically suggests that the future of movies is in sound hands.

Which is too bad. Because I actually think that Tobac and Baldwin are right. In many ways, I agree with the basic premise presented here. I do think that producers are too interested in the bottom line with little to no regard for the art of film (a huge change since the growth of independent film in the 1990’s). It is just unfortunate that Toback and Baldwin have chosen a less than stellar example to prove it.

And they seem so behind the times. They don’t explore how many contemporary filmmakers are finding money to make their films. In fact, there are no contemporary filmmakers in the movie. They interview Francis Ford Coppola, but not his daughter Sofia, who is one of the most exciting directors in film today (and seems to have less problems finding backing for her film than her father, or Toback). They talk to Martin Scorcese, but not such up and comers as Shane Carruth, Benh Zeitlin or Martin McDonough, all of whom are making some incredible films. The only contemporary artists they talk to are actors like Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain, all of whom have insightful things to say about what it’s like to be an actor today, but nothing about how to get a movie made.

There’s just something so false about the whole thing. Not only does the movie they are promoting never seem quite real (it’s all so vague, one wonders how they ever got the time of day from any financier to pitch it), it starts out with Toback telling Campbell that she is in the movie and nothing will stop that from happening. You know this scene is there for only one reason: so that at the first opportunity, Toback can make a satirical point by telling just about the first person he negotiates with that he will gladly jettison Neve for Jessica if they can agree upon a price. But again, it feels so fake, it’s hard to take seriously.

There is one other aspect of the film that gives a lie to Toback’s premise. When they decide to scale back the film and make it about these two people meeting in New York after both have left the war zone, yet are still scarred by their experiences, and meeting for sex at that point, they suddenly get offers left and right for a $4 to $5 million dollar film. Not only does the film now sound more interesting, Toback has found a way to finance his movie. It’s not his original vision, no; but then again, his original vision wasn’t worth $40 to $50 million in the first place.

Toback may be saying that these money men know how to make a profit, but nothing about art, but to be ruthlessly honest, I think he kind of unintentionally proved they knew both.

Movie Reviews of THE KINGS OF SUMMER and THE BLING RING by Howard Casner

The Kings of Summer is the new coming of age film by writer Chris Galetta and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. It’s very sincere and heartfelt in the tradition of such movies as Stand by Me and The Breakfast Club. But in the end, how you feel about it all will probably depend on how you feel about the central teenage characters. Personally, I thought they were a pair of drama queens and ungrateful little shits who didn’t know how well off they were. So I guess you know where I stand.

Both Joe and Patrick, the aforementioned teens, act like they’re from homes headed by Joan Crawford. Patrick (Gabriel Basso) is stuck with the nightmare of parents (Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson) whose worst crime is that they would fit right in on any network sit com. They give him hives (just like most network sit coms give me). Joe (Nick Robinson, late of Mud) has a father, Frank, (played by Nick Offerman) who is portrayed with a bit more depth—he’s still recovering from the death of his wife. Joe helps him through it by taking hour long showers and, when his father complains, standing nude in front of him. Frank’s biggest sin is wanting to have a family game night so Joe can meet the new woman Frank is dating. Well, all I can say, folks, is call child welfare services before any of them get out the wire coat hangers.

So, beset by the slings and arrows of, etc., that they believe they are receiving from their parents, the two callow youths run off to live in the woods where they can be their own boss. But they do it in the manner of Henry David Thoreau who made sure he was close enough to civilization to receive a constant barrage of visitors and near enough to his brother so his sister-in-law could do his laundry once a week (in The Kings of Summer, the pair have people over for game night and are within walking distance of a Boston Market).

The only aspect of the screenplay that seems to support the boys’ view of their horrible childhood is how little effort the parents put into trying to find them. I would think that this lack of interest would be even more upsetting than the hives Patrick gets. At the same time, it must be said that this section of the screenplay isn’t that believable, both that the authorities don’t put a lot more effort into it and that the kids couldn’t be found very easily (this all might have made more sense if the parents knew exactly where their sons were and decided to just let them work out their issues on their own).

But nothing in the film is really that believable. It all seems a bit pushed, a bit forced, a bit too romanticized, from the house that’s built in the woods (in less time than it takes most people to build a doghouse); to the third musketeer in their band of merry-men—to mix literary references (this is Biaggio, played by the Al Jolson-eyed Moises Arias who is unsure of his sexual orientation and is therefore used as comic relief—he’s actually the only one I sympathized with since his father didn’t even seem to know he had taken off); to the parents who are written with the attitude that they were never the confused, young, alienated kids their children are (there is almost always a whiff of hypocrisy in these films where the adults are ridiculed and made fun because they don’t love or understand their kids; but the writers, former kids all, don’t feel they have to do the same for the parents, and who probably now act more like the parents they write about than the kid; at the same time, credit must be given where credit is due—Offerman, Mullally and Jackson are excellent).

In the end, character arcs are fulfilled and life lessons are learned (especially never play Monopoly with either Joe or Patrick, who, apparently, are the sorest losers in the world), with formula being the real king here. But the whole thing is done with so little tension and conflict that the filmmakers have to force an ending by bringing in a deux ex machina in the form of a cotton head since nothing the characters are doing are ever going to resolve anything. Vogt-Roberts even seems to instinctively understand how little drama there really is here; he uses all sort of directorial flourishes like slo-mo shots, montages and constantly cutting away to nature to cover up what seems to be lacking at the core of it all.

The Bling Ring, the other coming of age film to come out this year, this one written and directed by Sofia Coppola (based on a Vanity Fair Article by Nancy Jo Sales), is filled with drama queens and little shits just like The Kings of Summer. But the difference is that that’s the point. Where The Kings of Summer is a romantic fantasy, The Bling Ring is a dark comedy that, as all good dark comedies do, becomes more real than reality.

The Bling Ring is another of Coppola’s dissection of the idea of celebrity (all of her films, except for her first, The Virgin Suicides, has some connection to this idea—even in Marie Antoinette the tragic queen isn’t looked at from a political point of view as much as if she was an 18th century version of Lindsay Lohan). The movie chronicles the true story of a group of entitled kids who break into the homes of and steal from various celebrities who are out of town on film and modeling shoots (some of the biggest revelations here are that celebrities are some of the worst when it comes to locking their doors; none of them seem to have live in help or very large families; and one of them wears high heels large enough to fit the male lead, though which of the celebrities has man feet, that I will not tell you). This is a group of psychopathic Bugsy Malones whose chutzpah is only overshadowed by their sheer stupidity; they upload pictures of their booty on Facebook, as if it never entered their head that adults even know what social media is.

The story begins in the same way that so many of these teenage tragedies do: a depressive with issues of self loathing (Marc, a gay teen who is school attendance challenged, played by Isarael Broussard with a series of hang dog looks) meets a sociopath (Rebecca, played by steely eyed Katie Chang). As happens in any self respecting film noir, an innocent is seduced by a femme fatale; think Double Indemnity with a lot more acne.

If nothing else, The Bling Ring is highly entertaining. It never lets go once it grabs you. The story seems too ridiculous to be believable, but like a train wreck, you just can’t look away. Coppola has gathered a first rate cast of young people to play her jackal-like pack of juvenile delinquents. I am even not ashamed to say that I didn’t recognize Harry Potters’ sweet Hermione, Emma Watson, as a self-absorbed teen with a messianic complex with delusions of grandeur. She steals the show with as much ease as she steals Paris Hilton’s purse.

The biggest criticism I’ve heard about this film is that Coppola doesn’t explain or pass judgment on her characters (this was also a criticism I remember at the time Martin Scorcese released Goodfellows). I have to admit I don’t quite get this. If you have to have Coppola tell you that these people are morally reprehensible and what they are doing is wrong, then the problem probably isn’t with Coppola, it’s probably with you.